Formed by brothers Jesse and Shane Matthewson, KEN mode became one of the great metallic hardcore acts of the 2000s. With an immediate and aggressive sound, drawing influence from diverse sonic areas, the band created a darker and oppressive aesthetic with their brew of hardcore music. With that as their focal point, KEN mode unleashed a barrage of great albums, from the early days of Mongrel and Reprisal the band reveled in their no holds barred and sinister hardcore approach. But, it was in 2011 with the release of Venerable that KEN mode really found their footing, building on to their extreme vision with a much deeper focus. The weight of sludge, the cold, mechanical touch that post-hardcore can produce and the asphyxiating elements of noise rock, all found their way into Venerable, showcasing the band at its best. Even more impressive was their return in 2013 with Entrench.
The only misstep in this series of albums was Success, the band’s previous full-length. Following their two greatest releases in Venerable and Entrench, Success arrived with a much more straightforward quality, seeing the band take on a more explicitly indie and noise rock quality. In leaving behind many of the elements that made their sound and vision so inspiring, KEN mode produced a record that was, for the most part, quite flat. Following its release, the band members focused on some different endeavors, with Jesse and Shane launching their own music business management services company, and bassist Scott Hamilton participating in releases from Adolyne and Greylight District. But, it feels like this break was necessary, and it has fueled the fire for KEN mode, leading to the release of Loved.
The new album is a return to the sound of Entrench, featuring the far-reaching sonic influences of KEN mode. The cyclothymic riffing, directly adapted from post-hardcore structures, becomes the tip of the spear for this record. The start of “Doesn’t Feel Pain Like He Should” highlights this spasmodic rendition from the band, while the breaks of the track contain some of the old-school punk energy. This dynamic between the traditional hardcore punk groove and the post-hardcore aesthetics is a key element of Loved, and sees the band balance between the two throughout the record.
“Not Soulmates” for instance features a combination of ’90s hardcore punk motifs and the more polished and technical side of post-hardcore. The result is impressive, and it also leads to further alchemical machinations, as is the case with the dark hardcore tone that “Fractures in Adults” create. In that instance, the noise rock element penetrates through the post-hardcore grooves and results in an impressive manifestation.
While the noise rock element gives the record its dissonant edge, the sludge influences provide the backbone for most of the tracks. “Feathers & Lips” features some of the heaviest material of the record, with KEN mode going into a recital of heavy, dirty riffs. The combination of sludge with noise also yields impressive results, as is the case with “The Illusion of Decay”, where the dissonant edge crushes over the slow, chugging guitars to create an inharmonious result.
Further experimentations add to the complexity of the band’s sound. The saxophone in “This Is a Love Test” provides one of the more mellow moments of the record, changing the ambiance and morphing it to a dark jazz lounge. That soon disappears as the band returns to its furious recital later on the track, but it is the build-up to that makes it so impressive. In a different manner, KEN mode explores the ambient territory with the closing track of the record, “No Gentle Art”. Delivering a ritualistic progression, the band slowly builds up this subtle beast with a circular, repetitive rendition. The inclusion of the sax in this instance is completely different, arriving with a harsher quality, showing its morphing capabilities.
All these elements add to the overarching theme that KEN mode explore, and that is this feeling of anguish and asphyxiation. Many of the hardcore bands in the late ’90s and ’00s were able to conjure an aggressive sound, filled with immediacy and urgency. But, for KEN mode that is not enough. Their music features a predominant, dystopian characteristic, which is, in turn, met with a sardonic response. It is the element that was most missed in Success, and its return in Loved is what makes the record so exciting.